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Why Do We Give Grants to Huge ISPs?

The blog title is a rhetorical question because we all know why we give federal money to big ISPs – they are powerful companies that have a lot of lobbyists and that make a lot of contributions to politicians. But for some reason, the rest of us don’t talk enough about why giving money to the big ISPs is bad policy.

I could write a week’s worth of blogs detailing reasons why big ISPs don’t deserve grant funding. The public dislikes big ISPs and has rated them for two decades as having the worst customer service among all corporations and entities, disliked even more than insurance companies and the IRS. The public hates talking to big ISPs, because every call turns into a sales pitch to spend more money.

The big ISPs routinely deceive their customers. They routinely advertise special prices and then proceed to bill consumers more than what was promised. They have hidden fees and try to disguise their rates as taxes and fees. The big telcos unashamedly bill rural customers big fees for decrepit DSL that barely works. The telcos have known for over a decade that they can’t deliver what they are peddling.

Cable companies come across as better than the telcos only because their broadband technology is faster. But in every city, there are some neighborhoods where speeds are far slower than advertised speeds – neighborhoods where longstanding network problems never get fixed. I hear stories all of the time about repeated slowdowns and outages. About 30% of the folks we’ve surveyed during the pandemic have said that they couldn’t work from home due to problems with cable company upload speeds.

And then there are the big reasons. The big telcos created the rural broadband crisis. They made a decision decades ago to walk away from rural copper. They quietly cut back on all upgrades and maintenance and eliminated tens of thousands of rural technicians, meaning that customers routinely wait a week or longer to even see a technician.

What’s worse, the big telcos didn’t walk away from rural America honestly. They kept talking about how they could provide good service, to the point that the FCC awarded them $11 billion in the CAF II program to improve rural DSL – we paid them for what they should have routinely done by reinvesting the billions they have collected from rural customers. But rather than use the CAF II money to improve rural DSL, most of the money got pocketed to the benefit of stockholders.

While I think the decision to walk away from rural broadband was made in the boardroom – the worst consequences of the decision were implemented locally. That’s how giant companies work and is the primary reason we shouldn’t give money to big ISPs. Upper management puts pressure on regional vice presidents to improve the bottom line, and it’s the regional managers who quietly cut back on technicians and equipment. Rural broadband didn’t die from one big sweeping decision – it was murdered by thousands of small cutbacks by regional bureaucrats trying to earn better bonuses. I’ve talked to many rural technicians who tell me that their companies have taken away every tool they have for helping customers.

What does this all boil down to? If we give money to the big ISPs to build rural networks, they are going to pocket some of the money like they did with CAF II. But even if they use grant money to build decent rural networks, it’s hard to imagine them being good stewards of those networks. The networks will not get the needed future upgrades. There will never be enough technicians. And every year the problems will get a little worse until we look up in twenty years and see rural fiber networks owned by the big ISPs that are barely limping along. Meanwhile, we’ll see networks operated by cooperatives, small telcos, and municipalities that work perfectly, that offer good customer service, and that have responsive repair and maintenance.

I have a hard time thinking that there is a single policy person or politician in the country who honestly thinks that big ISPs will take care of rural America over time. They’ll take federal money and build the least they can get away with. Then, within only a few years they’ll start to nickel and dime the rural properties as they have always done.

I have to laugh when I hear somebody comparing current rural broadband grant programs to our effort a century ago for rural electrification. That electrification money went mostly to cooperatives and not to the big commercial corporations. We’ve lost track of that important fact when we use the electrification analogy. The government made the right decision by lending money to citzens to solve the electricity gap and didn’t give money to the big commercial electric companies that had already shunned rural America.

The main reason we shouldn’t give grants to big ISPs is that solving the rural broadband gap is too important to entrust to companies that we know will do a lousy job. There is nobody who thinks that the big telcos or cable companies will do the right thing in rural America over the long run if we’re dumb enough to fund them.

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Current News

Frontier Faces a New Problem

Frontier recently emerged from bankruptcy and seemingly is ready to tackle some of its biggest problems. The company has been laden in heavy debt and unable to pursue an aggressive capital expansion program to build fiber. The company has been bleeding both broadband and cable customers over the last few years.

The company shed $10 billion of debt in bankruptcy and told the bankruptcy court that it intends to immediately start building fiber to kick-start the refreshed business. The industry analysts at MoffettNathanson have opined that a reinvigorated Frontier has a chance to improve performance and to achieve decent returns on capital investments. The analysts expect Frontier to stabilize its customer base by 2023 to 2024 and then begin growing customers and revenues.

However, after barely being out of bankruptcy, Frontier was hit by a lawsuit from the Federal Trade Commission and the attorney generals of Arizona, California, Indiana, Michigan, North Carolina, and Wisconsin. The lawsuit alleges that Frontier knowingly advertises speeds that it knows it can’t deliver. The FTC suit says that “Since at least January 2015, thousands of consumers complained to Frontier and government agencies that the company failed to provide DSL Internet service at the speeds they were promised.”

This lawsuit should be a warning to many other ISPs. The suit specifically attacks the practice of advertising “up to” speeds that no customer can attain. The FTC acknowledges that Frontier says that they might not be able to deliver the advertised speeds to all locations and that speeds are not guaranteed. This aligns with other recent FTC actions where the FTC believes that warnings in the fine print can’t be used to offset significantly different claims in the main body of advertising. Essentially, the FTC says Frontier can’t claim speeds up to 25/3 Mbps when it knows that no customer in a service area can get close to that speed.

The FTC is partnering with states due to a recent court ruling that said that the FTC cannot impose monetary damages. States are allowed to do so, and as partners in the suits, these states will clearly be seeking monetary damages from Frontier.

Anybody that has lived or worked in rural America knows that the FTC and state claims are valid. I’ve worked with clients in Frontier territory where the company claims 25/3 Mbps in the FCC reporting – and according to the suit also in advertising to customers. When we’ve done speed tests in some counties where Frontier is an ISP, we often haven’t seen any customer achieving speeds greater than 10/1 Mbps, with many even slower than this.

It’s worth noting that the FCC allows ISPs to report advertised speeds in the FCC mapping, so according to the FCC, as long as an ISP is advertising a speed to customers, they can report that to the FCC. What this lawsuit says is quite different – it says that ISPs shouldn’t advertise speeds that can’t be delivered. This is something that I’ve always thought the FCC should implement, but they never have. In fact, in the ‘new’ broadband mapping the FCC is planning to introduce it is still allowing ISPs to report advertised speeds instead of an estimate of actual speeds.

While this lawsuit is against Frontier, they are not the only ISP in the country that is claiming speeds to customers and to the FCC that are faster than what can be delivered. In rural areas, we’ve seen this same issue with other large telcos and from numerous WISPs. I would have to think that if Frontier loses this suit that this might be a big warning for the rest of the rural broadband industry.

When the FCC opens up the new mapping to public comments, I predict the agency will be swamped with people complaining about the actual speeds compared to what is being advertised. Oddly, if the FCC sticks with the idea that reporting advertised speeds is okay, it will ignore such complaints – which is not going to make the public very happy.

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Current News

This Time it’s Verizon

We occasionally get a good reminder of how poorly the large duopoly ISPs in the country treat their customers. The latest example comes from Verizon. The Washington Post reported how Verizon has been requiring customers to upgrade to more expensive data plans before being able to benefit from the $50 monthly discount offered by the Emergency Broadband Benefit (EBB) program.

The EBB program was funded with $3.2 billion from the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan Act. The program provides up to a $50 discount off broadband bills to qualifying households. A household qualifies by being low-income and eligible for the FCC Lifeline program or has suffered a significant drop in household income due to the pandemic.

The EBB is a temporary plan that will last until the $3.2 billion is gone, at which point participants lose the $50 discount. We won’t know how long that will be until we get a count of the participants in the program, but I’ve seen several estimates that this might last for six to nine months.

The Washington Post article cites customers who called Verizon to ask for the EBB discount and were told that they could only get the discount if they first upgrade to a more expensive package. As an example, somebody paying $60 per month will be required to upgrade to $90 per month to get the discount. This likely means that over the next year that people who get the EBB discount will probably end up spending as much or more with Verizon than if they didn’t get the EBB discount.

As the article points out, this is likely not illegal on Verizon’s part, but it goes completely against the purpose of the EBB, which is to help out households who have had hard economic times during the pandemic. Many of the subscribers asking for the discount will be the same ones who have had trouble paying rent after losing a job due to the pandemic.

There is a huge list of ways that big duopoly ISPs have mistreated customers over the years, but this particular case might be the posterchild of ISP abuse. Somebody at the company figured out a way to gain a longer-term advantage for the company as part of a pandemic relief program.

I’m also willing to bet that this will turn out to be a story of how monopoly abuses come about. It’s extremely unlikely that an idea like this started in the Verizon Boardroom. Instead, I bet that somebody down the management chain saw this as an opportunity to increase bonuses as a reward for achieving a bunch of upsells. If that sounds familiar, it is exactly what happened at Well Fargo Bank a few years ago when employees were opening extra accounts for customers as a way to make higher bonuses.

This is how monopoly abuses occur – not from the boardroom, but from employees that take advantage of the market power of the company for personal gain. That personal gain could be in the form of bonuses, or maybe just in getting recognized to gain promotions. That’s the only way to explain away some of the amazing stories that have come out over the years from Comcast customer service. The chances are high that the folks who thought up this idea are in hot water at Verizon – not because they were doing the wrong thing, but because they were dumb enough to get caught and drive a story to the front page of the Washington Post.

These periodic headlines detailing monopoly behavior are always a good reminder for smaller ISPs to be careful because employees at smaller ISPs can undertake similar behavior if they see a personal gain from cheating. Most of my clients have eliminated the temptation for shenanigans by having simple products that are always at the same prices for customers. But when an ISP is willing to negotiate rates with customers there is too much chance of bad behavior by employees.

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Current News

New NTIA Grants

This is the year for unusual and unexpected broadband grant opportunities. The NTIA released a Notice of Funding Opportunity (NOFO) on May 21 for a broadband grant program it is labeling as the Broadband Infrastructure Program. The NTIA will be awarding grants for up to $288 million, with the funding provided from the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan Act.

This is an unusual grant program because the money is aimed entirely at public-private partnerships (PPPs). The applications must be submitted by a government entity, but the specific partner must be identified that will operate the broadband business. I can’t think of another grant program in the past that even favored PPPs, let alone one that is only available to PPPs. It’s going to be interesting to see if there are enough rural PPPs in existence to use all of the money.

The grants are holding to the firm definition that the money can only be used in places where speeds are less than 25/3 Mbps. This creates a huge dilemma if the NTIA is going to stick to the lousy FCC mapping data that incorrectly shows huge swaths of rural areas as having 25/3 Mbps broadband. One would hope that the NTIA will be open to accepting evidence that actual speeds are often far slower than what has been claimed by some telcos and WISPs. If not, it’s going to be hard to find rural areas that weren’t already covered by the RDOF grants.

The grants are like all current federal broadband grants and can’t be used where prior grants have already been awarded to an area but are not yet constructed. That’s going to create an interesting dilemma for some communities. There are some RDOF grant areas that are being heavily disputed, and which may not get awarded. The FCC also awarded grants to Viasat in last year’s incentive reverse auction and communities are rightfully upset that these places are not eligible to get fiber. There is growing concern about the pending RDOF awards made to Starlink.

The grants must propose an engineered business plan. The NTIA expects the engineering to be solid because they expect projects to be built within one year of grant awards. The NTIA can grant a one-year extension for construction in some circumstances. But this rapid construction expectation means the NTIA only wants to see applications from ‘shovel-ready’ projects. Any community thinking of pursuing these grants should be forming the needed partnership immediately.

The grant applications are due by August 17. The NTIA doesn’t expect to start making grant awards until at least November 29. The NOFO offers that the NTIA might award additional funding to approved projects if there is not enough demand for the funding.

The NTIA warns that it will likely not award money to small projects, and it expects awards to be between $5 million and $30 million. That’s understandable when you consider that the agency is going to have to process a lot of the grant requests quickly between August and November. Applicants would be wise to apply early.

While there is no statutory reason that NTIA cannot award 100% grants, they caution applicants that they will favor projects that contribute matching funds of 10% or more – the NTIA wants to see the commercial partners have some skin in the game. They also want these matching funds to be non-federal dollars, meaning the matching shouldn’t come from some other bucket of funding from the $1.9 trillion ARPA program.

This is probably the most unique federal broadband grant I can remember in that the funding is only available to public-private partnerships and no other business structure. Since the grants are only being awarded to the public member of the partnership, this also implies ownership of the network by local governments and some sort of ongoing participation in the business. It’s going to be interesting to see how partnerships are created to meet these grant requirements.

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Current News

4G on the Moon

This blog is a little more lighthearted than my normal blog. An article in FierceWireless caught my eye talking about how Nokia plans to establish a 4G network on the Moon.

The primary purpose of the wireless technology will be to communicate between a base station and lunar rovers. 4G LTE is a mature and stable technology that can handle data transmission with ease – particularly in an environment where there won’t be any interference. While the initial communications will be limited to a base station and lunar rovers, the choice of 4G will make it easier to integrate future devices like sensors and astronaut cellphones into the network. NASA historically used proprietary communications gear, but it makes a lot more sense to use a communications platform that can easily communicate with a wide range of existing devices.

One challenge Nokia and NASA have to overcome on the moon is that the transmissions will be made between a low-sitting rover to a base station antenna that probably won’t be more than 3 – 5 meters off the ground. While there are no trees or other such obstacles on the moon, there are plenty of boulders and craters that will be a challenge for communications.

Nokia will have one benefit not available on earth – they can use the best spectrum band possible for the transmissions. They can establish wider data channels than are used on earth to accommodate more data within a transmission. Nobody has ever been handed a clean spectrum  slate to develop the perfect 4G system before, and Nokia engineers are probably having a good time with this.

The biggest challenge will be in designing a lightweight cellular base station that contains the core, the baseband, and the radios in a small box. All of the components must be hardened to work in wide-ranging temperatures on the moon, which can range from a high of 260 F in the daytime to minus 280 F in the dark.

Nokia engineers know they have to test, then retest the gear – there will be no easy repairs on the moon. The vision is that future lunar landings will touch down on the surface and then send off both manned and unmanned rovers to explore the moon’s surface. The 4G gear must survive the rigors of an earth launch, a moon landing, and the vibrations and jolts from rovers and still be guaranteed to always work in the desolate lunar environment

I have to admit that my first reaction to the article was, “Shouldn’t we be putting 5G on the moon?”. But then it struck me. There is no 5G anywhere in the world other than the marketing product that cellular carriers call 5G. Since there will be no easy upgrades in space, Nokia engineers are being honest in calling for 4G LTE. Honestly labeling this as 4G will remind future engineers and scientists about the technology being used. Wouldn’t it be refreshing if Nokia was as honest about the 5G in our terrestrial cellular networks?

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Current News

Broadband Shorts for March 2021

Following are a few broadband topics that I found of interest but that are too short for individual blogs.

The End of Project Loon. The Google parent firm Alphabet has killed project Loon. This was the attempt to use a fleet of balloons to bring broadband to remote places. The project was started 9 years ago and spun off as a separate company two-and-a-half years ago.

It’s a little surprising because Loon had some successes. Loon had raised $219 million of equity from SoftBank in 2019. Loon was able to bring some broadband and cellular coverage to Puerto Rico after the devastating hurricanes. Loon was recently approved by the government of Kenya to bring broadband to remote areas. The company’s stated goal was to bring Internet access to a billion people.

There are likely a few contributing factors to the decision. One is the pending ascension of satellite broadband. Google also faced fierce pushback in places like India that didn’t want broadband fostered by a big US company. It was also likely coming clear that it’s hard to base a company on providing subsidized broadband – that means lining up a lot of governments to pay the subsidies.

Surprising Success of Telehealth. Parks Associates conducted a study that shows that 41% of all US households took part in a telehealth visit in 2020. Further, 29% of homes say they are likely to engage in telehealth in 2021. About half of all kids under 18 have a high degree of interest in permanently adopting telehealth.

The survey also showed overall high satisfaction with the technical performance of telehealth. This is somewhat surprising since the vast majority of medical professionals scrambled to institute telehealth last spring. A majority of medical practitioners also expressed satisfaction with telehealth – 65% of healthcare organizations rate the 2020 telehealth delivery as a success and 94% plan to continue offering telehealth services.

While this is only one survey when added to everything else being published about telehealth it looks like this is something that’s going to stick.

Popularity of Working from Home. Masergy, a supplier of managed SD-Wan software, undertook a survey that showed that about two-thirds of knowledge workers report being happier working from home. While employees were forced to work at home due to the pandemic, a lot of those working from home expressed a strong preference to never return to the office environment. Reasons given included increased productivity and the avoidance of the commute. Many of those working at home are comfortable with the idea of a hybrid schedule that puts them in the office occasionally, but mostly working from home.

From the employer’s perspective, the biggest challenge of 2020 has been security. But ISPs and software firms have developed solutions that seem to be working for most companies.

This has a lot of implications for both broadband and for corporations that employ knowledge workers. For ISPs, this means continued demand for upload bandwidth – something that I think cable companies were hoping would fade away with the end of the pandemic. This also puts pressure on employers, because workers that prefer working from home are going to migrate to corporations that embrace the idea – while ones that don’t might have trouble finding the best talent.

Really? There is a seller on eBay apparently successfully marketing 5G repellent cream. Without even mentioning the size of the jar, they are selling lotion for $36 under the brand name ‘5 Guard’.  I find this to be funny in that the 5G radiation that most scares some people is millimeter-wave spectrum. This spectrum can’t penetrate human skin more than perhaps a cell or two deep. I’m sure this isn’t the first G repellant – just the first one I ran across.

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Current News The Industry

The State of the Internet

The Mozilla Internet Health Report is packed with interesting statistics about the state of the Internet. Reports like this one remind us that broadband is a worldwide issue that is much larger than the US broadband industry I write about every day.

The report contains a lot of interesting facts:

  • A little more than half of the planet is still not connected to the Internet. As a planet, we still have a long way to go. While the largest percentage of a region still not online is in Africa, by sheer numbers, most of those still not connected are in Asia.
  • Worldwide, men are 21% more likely to be online than women.
  • Much of the world connects to broadband through cellphones, and the cost of broadband is a huge issue in many parts of the world. In Middle Africa, a gigabit of cellular broadband costs almost 12% of the average monthly income. In Western Africa, it’s over 8% and in Eastern Africa, it’s over 7.4%. Closer to home in Central America it’s 4%.
  • Much of the world can’t afford smartphones. For example, in Sierra Leone it takes six months of an average salary to buy a smartphone. In India it takes 63 days of the average salary.
  • Seven of the top ten largest companies in the world, by market capitalization, are Internet companies – Apple, Microsoft, Amazon, Alphabet (Google), Facebook, Tencent, and Alibaba.
  • Five of those companies – Amazon, Microsoft, Alibaba, Google, and Tencent – control 80% of all of the cloud traffic in the world, meaning that most other web applications run through these companies.
  • Four of the top six social media platforms, in terms of users are owned by Facebook – Facebook, WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, and Instagram.

The report also contains many stories about some of the negative aspects of the web. A few include:

  • The states of Rakhine and Chin in Myanmar have been blacked out from Internet access for over a year. Governments routinely block Internet access as a way to punish or control people. In addition to these two places, there was at least one other place in the world with blocked access every day in 2020.
  • 2020 might go down as the year when Internet disinformation was weaponized with governments all over the world using social media to spread propaganda.
  • The pandemic magnified the extent of the digital divide across the world. In many parts of the world, the education systems have effectively shut down for rural and poor urban students.
  • Government data has been hacked. A good example is a hack in Chile where over 19 gigabytes of citizen data including passwords and personal identifying data was stolen.
  • There are practically no binding guidelines anywhere in the world that set limits or define ethics for the newly developing artificial intelligence technology.

Of course, there are also positive things happening with the Internet:

  • In the US and Europe, there is a major push to tackle antitrust abuses by the largest web companies.
  • Europe is leading the world, but others are catching up in creating rules to enforce consumer privacy.

It’s easy to forget that the web only became a real thing in the mid-1990s. While there are clear problems associated with the web, it’s also amazing that in a little over 25 years we’ve connected half of the people on the planet.

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Current News The Industry

The Need for Training Telecom Technicians

Eleven different industry trade associations have written a joint letter to Congress and the new administration asking that any new infrastructure funding include training for telecom technicians. I can’t recall a time when so many associations aligned like this on any issue.

The letter included support from the Competitive Carriers Association (CCA), the Fiber Broadband Association (FBA), INCOMPAS, NATE: The Communications Infrastructure Contractors Association, NTCA – The Rural Broadband Association, Power & Communication Contractors Association (PCCA), the Telecommunications Industry Association, USTelecom – The Broadband Association, the Wireless Infrastructure Association (WIA), the Wireless Internet Service Providers Association (WISPA), and the CTIA.

The letter says that the industry expects to create 850,000 new technician jobs by 2025 to support wireline and wireless deployments. To put that number into perspective, the industry currently employees 672,000 technicians with an average salary of $77,500. The industries also collectively expect to add another 2.1 million jobs to support the new industries like 5G and new fiber ISPs.

The associations are asking for the federal government to expand existing apprenticeship programs and create new ones that combine class learning along with field experience. There are some such programs in the country, but nearly enough to handle the upcoming needs of the telecom industry. To letter asks that in order to promote diversity that training programs be established at Historically Black Colleges and Universities and Tribal Colleges and Universities along with community colleges, public universities, and other institutions.

The industries suggest that training institutions form public/private partnerships with the industry to help develop the programs in a timely manner and to make sure that training is covering state-of-the-art technologies and techniques.

We are not currently prepared to double the number of fiber technicians – but we’re going to have to find a way to do it. There are some formal training programs for fiber technicians, mostly being done by trade schools or technical colleges that sponsor apprenticeship like the CFOT or CPCT certification process sponsored by the Fiber Optic Association. But the majority of fiber technicians today are trained on the job with new employees starting as hands-on journeymen.

I’ve written about this issue before. We’re facing a shortage of technicians for several reasons. First, the large telcos have been downsizing technician workforces for the last two decades, meaning they did not train a lot of new technicians. These big ISPs have historically been the primary drivers for training new technicians. Unfortunately, this also means that a lot of the technician workforce are baby boomers who are now retiring, causing additional shortages.

We must find a way to make this happen or the wireless and broadband industries will be forced to cut back on expansion plans. We’ve been building fiber and new small cell sites at a furious pace for the last few years and are likely to continue to do so as long as we have the technicians needed to construct the new networks and to maintain them after they are built. Fiber and wireless technicians are the kinds of solid middle-class jobs our economy needs and hopefully, we can kick training programs into high gear in a hurry.

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Current News

Trying to Understand the RDOF Grant Awards

I live in North Carolina, and in the last few days, I heard a few things about the RDOF grant awards that I found to be disturbing. First, a state politician is claiming that the RDOF awards are going to take care of the rural broadband problems in the state, so there is no longer any reason for the state to be looking at broadband solutions. I also heard from a few county broadband groups who are wondering if they still have a role to play in seeking better broadband.

I had not previously analyzed the North Carolina RDOF winners, so this set me off to gather the facts. The following is what I found about the tentative RDOF awards in North Carolina. I say tentative because the FCC still has to approve each recipient and award and the FCC just recently received the long forms that start the review process.

  • North Carolina has tentatively been awarded $166.6 million in grants, to be paid to grant winners over 10 years or $16.66 million per year.
  • The grants cover 155,137 households in North Carolina or roughly 350,000 people. In a state with 10.5 million people, the grants propose to bring improved broadband to 3.4% of the people in the state.
  • The RDOF grant works out to $1,074 per household.

Here are the RDOF winners in North Carolina:

  • Charter – $142.1 million
  • Starlink – $17.4 million
  • Windstream – $4.2 million
  • Wilkes Membership Cooperative – $1.3 million
  • Co-op Connections Consortium – $721,000
  • CenturyLink – $530,000
  • Mediacom – $304,000
  • Connecting Rural America – $33,600
  • Carolina West Wireless – $460.

Charter is the big winner, taking over 85% of the RDOF award in the state. Starlink got over 10% of the award in the state, and everybody else combined got a little less than 5%.

Recall that RDOF was only awarded in places where the FCC broadband maps say that broadband speeds are less than 25/3 Mbps. In the latest FCC broadband report to Congress, just released in January of this year, the FCC claimed that 456,000 people in rural North Carolina don’t have broadband – and the RDOF only covers one-third of those folks. But we also know that the FCC mapping data is full of problems. The State of Georgia undertook an analysis of the FCC mapping and determined that the number of homes in Georgia without broadband is twice what is claimed by the FCC. It’s hard to know the actual number of people in North Carolina without 25/3 Mbps broadband, but it has to be a lot more than 456,000.

The most troublesome aspect of the RDOF grants in the state is the average award of $1,074 per household. This might be adequate for Starlink if they provide a free receiver for customers (not known if they will do that), but this doesn’t come close to building the technology promised by Charter. Charter has promised to build gigabit infrastructure and that means building either a traditional HFC (hybrid fiber/coaxial) network or fiber. The RDOF grant is bringing broadband to some of the most rural places in the state. As a point of comparison, I’ve analyzed several rural counties in Minnesota recently that have perhaps the lowest rural construction costs imaginable – and the all-in costs in those counties were at least $6,600 per passing. It’s not hard to guess that the costs in rugged Appalachia could easily be as much as $15,000 per passing. Charter has pledged an additional $3.8 billion in equity to match the RDOF funds, meaning $5 billion in total budget. Nationwide, Charter won the grants to cover 1.06 million homes, meaning they have set aside funds of about $4,727 per passing. I have trouble envisioning that Charter has enough money to bring gigabit broadband with that budget.

There are other troubling aspects of the RDOF grants. There have been technical concerns raised recently about the ability of Starlink to meet both the build-out deadlines and the speeds promised for RDOF. In North Carolina, a lot of the Starlink funding is going to Appalachia, and there is a concern about the ability of homes in the mountains and woods to get the needed view of the horizon to see satellites.

Perhaps the biggest downside to the RDOF grants is that grant award winners have six years to build the promised solutions. That’s a long time to wait for households that are hurting without broadband today. And it’s a really long time to wait if some of the RDOF homes never get the promised broadband.

Unfortunately, the facts in a lot of states probably look similar to North Carolina. This has prompted widespread warnings from members of Congress and from various telecom associations that the RDOF awards are troubling. But even if the award winners can somehow reach every pledged home for the grant money as awarded, we know that the RDOF grants will not alone solve the rural broadband problems in North Carolina. Local broadband committees need to keep pressing ahead to find broadband solutions. Politicians can’t use the partial solution brought by RDOF as cover for not supporting broadband solutions.

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Current News

How Good is Low-Income Broadband?

The two biggest cable companies, Comcast and Charter, have taken lots of public bows this year talking about how they are making sure that homes with students have affordable broadband during the pandemic.

Comcast is serving low-income students with its Internet Essentials product. This product is available to homes that are eligible for the National School Lunch Program, Housing Assistance, Medicaid, SNAP, and SSI. The low-income program got its genesis in 2011 as a requirement for the Comcast acquisition of NBC Universal. The company reluctantly offered the product at first, but after growing to 2.6 million households by 2013, the company decided to keep this as a product.

At the start of the pandemic, Internet Essentials offered speeds of 15 Mbps download and 2 Mbps upload. In March 2020 Comcast increased the speeds to 25/3 Mbps. The company worked out deals with some school systems to provide a few months of the product for free. Comcast recently announced that it will increase the speed of the product to 50/5 Mbps on March 1. Comcast recently reported that it has over 8 million households using the product.

Charter has a similar product called Spectrum Internet Assist that delivers 30/3 Mbps for $14.99 with a WiFi router for $5 per month. During the pandemic, Charter has offered qualifying new subscribers two months of free service for any internet product up to 100 Mbps.

A recent article in BuzzFeed documents how students have been pushing back against Comcast, which may have been part of the impetus to increase speeds for Internet Essentials. The article tells of a family with only two students that were unable to both work on the Comcast connection at the same time. The Internet Essentials product is good enough for one student, but not two.

Comcast has been pushing back on criticism of Internet Essentials all year saying that the 25/3 Mbps product is adequate because it meets the FCC’s definition of broadband. But the fact that the company will be increasing the speed to 50/5 Mbps shows that the company recognizes that 25/3 Mbps is not adequate broadband for many households.

This raises the bigger question of how best to provide broadband to low-income homes. While the two programs from the cable companies are inexpensive, they also provide inferior broadband. It feels like the companies are punishing households for not having enough money for a full subscription.

For example, consider the low-income broadband product at EPB in Chattanooga, the municipal broadband provider that delivers over fiber. EPB offers a low-income product of 100/100 Mbps for $26.99, less than half of normal broadband priced at $57.99. This is the identical product delivered to customers paying the full price. The City would like to offer the product for a lower price, but Tennessee law prohibits municipal broadband systems from offering a subsidized product.

The real problem that families are having with the cable company broadband products is the slow upload speeds. Limiting upload speeds to 3, 4, or 5 Mbps is inadequate for students trying to function from home or adults trying to work from home.

During this last year of the pandemic, we have done surveys in a number of cities where households are struggling with the normal cable upload products that have upload speeds between 10 Mbps and 20 Mbps. In the four cities we’ve most recently surveyed, about one-third of households say that their cable broadband product is not adequate for working or schooling from home.

The cable companies face a huge dilemma. They know the upload speeds on their network are inadequate. They also know that fixing the problem is going to incredibly expensive. At a minimum, a cable company would have to undertake what is knows as a mid-split to bring the faster upload speeds to something faster like 50 Mbps. The mid-split option has been available under the DOCSIS 3.1 standard, but few cable companies upgraded the upload portions of networks. The even more expensive upgrade to DOCSIS 4.0 will be available in a few years to bring symmetrical bandwidth.

Since cable networks are already overloaded, it’s clear that the cable companies don’t want to provide full bandwidth to customers that aren’t paying full price, so they are treating low-income subscribers as second-class citizens. Perhaps they should look at the EPB example and charge more. Why not also offer a $30 product that has better upload speeds?